Thu, Dec 04, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Economics’ failure to tackle problems drives women away

Despite new arrivals at the Bank of England, the discipline must do more to attract female students

By Jennifer Rankin  /  The Guardian. LONDON

Illustration: Mountain People

On the first Thursday of every month, nine men and women meet within the marble halls of the Bank of England to decide whether the nation’s mortgages should get more expensive and to answer the £375 billion (US$687 billion) question: Is it time to reverse the bank’s electronic printing presses, which pumped money into the economy during the financial crisis?

More specifically, seven men and two women make those vital decisions. As recently as six months ago, it was nine men. It was only the arrival of former World Bank official Nemat Shafik and US academic Kristin Forbes at the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) that ended an all-male run that had lasted for four years.

About the same time Charlotte Hogg was poached from Santander to become the bank’s chief operating officer, as part of Bank of England Governor Mark Carney’s attempt to get more women into the 320-year-old institution. In addition, early next year in the US, Janet Yellen is set to mark the anniversary of her becoming the first woman to run the US Federal Reserve.

However, despite these appointments, researchers warn that progress in getting women into such influential jobs is set to remain slow because not enough women are studying economics. In the UK, women make up just 27 percent of economics students, despite accounting for 57 percent of the undergraduate population, according to a study from the University of Southampton last month. This gap has remained unchanged for almost 20 years, even though female undergraduates now outnumber men in law and medicine, while almost equal numbers study business.

Lead author of the study Mirco Tonin thinks deep cultural factors put women off the “dismal science.”

“Maybe when people think about economics what comes to mind is a male role model,” he said.

Kate Barker, who served on the MPC for nine years, was at times the only woman and said it was an odd experience.

“It is not because I felt crushed or got at... There is just something odd about being the only woman on a panel of nine. It was much better when [former members] Marion Bell and Rachel Lomax were on. When there were three women it felt much more normal,” she said.

She was invited to help recruit her successors when her fixed term came to an end, but said: “We weren’t always able to attract as many applications from women as we would like.”

DeAnne Julius, the only woman among the founding members of the MPC, said the finding that more than 50 percent of undergraduates are female is probably more important than the numbers studying economics, since it makes women’s talents available to the economy at large. However, that does not mean the economics establishment should rest easy.

“This [lack of women] is a symptom that something is wrong,” she said.

Julius said university economics curricula that center increasingly on statistical modeling and have lost sight of real-world problems are at fault.

Barker agreed.

“Maybe if people felt there was more relevance, they would do it,” she said.

Olivia Wills, a fourth-year undergraduate studying economics and politics at the University of Sheffield, said her inspirations were pioneering experts on human behavior, but university offered a textbook world where “rational economic man” acts in a self-interested and predictable way.

“Economics as it is taught at university is incredibly one-dimensional and doesn’t allow for nuances of human behavior,” she said.

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